Cohen: authoritarian but enlightened


Job Cohen was a uniting leader in Amsterdam. His succesor will have a hard time filling his shoes.

It was a sound move by Job Cohen to immediately step down as Amsterdam mayor on Friday afternoon when it became clear he was likely to become the new leader of the Dutch Labour party. His candidacy would have left him unable to stand above party politics in the coming months, which is a mayor's traditional position.


What made the step particularly necessary was that during his announcement Cohen made it clear he would make the bridge-building style he adopted as mayor of the Dutch capital a Labour selling point in the upcoming election campaign. He used the word "together" in almost every sentence.

That word sums up the way in which he has fulfilled his mayoral role since 2001. With his aversion to long words and his sometimes rather paternalistic rhetoric, Cohen had a depolarising effect on Amsterdam in a period during which the country faced ethnic and religious polarisation, two political murders, countless criminal liquidations and electoral tensions.

Partly because of this, after his nine years in office, the picture is largely positive. The way he kept the city under control following the murder of film-maker Theo van Gogh in November 2004 has a lot to do with it. But his inclusive approach was also effective in less heated periods. The results of the local elections at the beginning of March showed this. Just as in the turbulent 2002 elections, Amsterdam bucked the national trend.

His opponents have accused Cohen of merely drinking tea with representatives of Islam and others. What they didn't know or preferred to ignore was that he sometimes brusquely summoned those representatives to city hall but kept this quiet to avoid senseless escalation. If the word didn't have such negative connotations, you could almost say he was a democratic dictator.

All this praise doesn't mean Amsterdam is thriving in all respects. Financially it is doing badly. There will have to be so many deep cuts in public spending that it is fair to ask how much freedom the city council will have to govern.

The need for cuts is not only a result of the budgetary fiasco of the new metro line Amsterdam is currently constructing. The recession has had enormous consequences for the city. Over the past decennia Amsterdam has been betting on the financial services industry which is now discredited because of the banking crisis. Amsterdam will have to take steps to avoid being put under state legal restraint. At the same time, it needs to think about a different and more versatile social-economic structure. And that costs money.

City executive Lodewijk Asscher, currently interim mayor, has offered to continue in the post for the time being. Nevertheless, city councillors and other officials responsible for the appointment of a new mayor need to get on with choosing a successor soon. Whoever it is will not have an easy time in Cohen's shadow.

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Election 2010